Little by little, drip by drip, it was the accretion of small agonies that drove Andy Murray into the interview room at Melbourne Park on Friday to tearfully announce his impending retirement.
Most ordinary mortals would have packed it in long ago, but then Murray would not have won two Wimbledon titles without his extraordinary stubbornness. A natural ditherer, he likes to keep all options in play until the last minute. What pushed him over the edge this time was the humiliation of Thursday afternoon’s practice match against world No 1 Novak Djokovic.
Murray and Djokovic were born just a week apart, in May 1987, so that their careers travelled in parallel. Here at the Australian Open, they contested no fewer than four finals. Murray lost the lot, but at least he had always competed – until now.
“You just kind of feel like helpless on the court,” he told a group of British reporters on Friday, after an emotional press conference which saw him break down in tears and temporarily leave the room when he first tried to speak.
“It’s just … it sucks. I’ve played I don’t know how many hours of tennis against him here over the years. And although I didn’t win, the competitiveness was always there. On Friday, there was none of that and there was no feeling of rivalry. I was just not happy with the way I felt on court.”
Having shaken hands at the end of his 6-1, 4-1 drubbing, Murray sat on the courtside bench with his team and waved his hands around angrily in a lengthy debrief. Many observers wondered then whether he might withdraw from the Australian Open. And perhaps he would have done, had there been a decent chance of his returning here in 12 months’ time.
As it is, Monday’s first-round meeting with Roberto Bautista Agut – the 22nd seed, and the recent champion in Doha – looks likely to be his final match as a professional tennis player.
Once his tournament is done, Murray will almost certainly report for a second operation on that recalcitrant right hip. The first, which was carried out here in Melbourne 12 months ago, was an arthroscopy – a simple clear-out of angry tissue and floating cartilage, which failed to resolve his chronic pain. The second will be a more significant procedure, in which the top of his femur and the inside of his hip socket are both coated with a layer of metal.
Murray has already stated that the priority of his next surgery will be quality of life, rather than adding to his already sparkling tennis CV. He disclosed that he has been struggling to even put on shoes and socks without significant pain.
Best way to feel better after a tough day is a big cuddle from your mum �� Genuinely been very touched by all of the messages and support from everybody today... It means a lot and has made me feel much more positive than when I woke this morning��Thank you so much. ❤️
A post shared by Andy Murray (@andymurray) on Jan 11, 2019 at 5:36am PST
“If I stop playing tennis today,” he added, “I would seriously be considering having an operation because day-to-day life is not fun. I can’t do stuff I would want to do, even if I wasn’t a professional athlete. I would want to go and play football with my friends, or go and play 18 holes of golf and enjoy doing that. Whereas I can’t think of anything worse than going and playing five-a-side football with my friends, because I can’t kick a football.
“There is a possibility it could prolong my career. Hip resurfacing is something that has been around for 15 years and allows younger people to live a very active lifestyle. That is why, I think and understand from speaking to experts, it is a better option for somebody of my age [than a full hip replacement].”
You can hear more than a hint of indecision in those words. Murray has not quite shut the door on his tennis career yet, and he still insisted he wanted one final appearance at Wimbledon this summer. He just cannot resist the idea of a miracle cure. And he could not help mentioning that “there are quite a few athletes out there who have gone back to competing after having it done”.
What is clear is that he could not have gone on for much longer as he was.
“It was in December when I kind of made that decision and told my team about it,” he said. “It was in the middle of one practice. I had tears in my eyes and said, ‘My hip is killing me. I shouldn’t be continuing to go through that for nothing any more’.”
The session in question was shared with Spanish veteran Fernando Verdasco at Crandon Park in Miami, the venue for two of Murray’s 45 career titles.
“As the practice went on, it was getting worse and I was like, ‘I can’t do this. What am I doing this for?’ The same sequence is happening. As soon as I start to increase my tennis load and competing and playing matches, the pain gets worse and my performance drops and I have to take a rest for a few days.
“The way it’s happened doesn’t sit particularly well with me. It’s not how I would want to finish playing. I don’t think any athlete wants that, they want to go out when they decide, not have their body telling them that that is the case. That’s the hardest part of it.”
You can understand why Murray would want to keep a chink of hope in his heart. He knows nothing but tennis. And perhaps the operation will be enough of a success to put him back on court for one valedictory Wimbledon appearance.
If not, though, then what will he remember from his glorious career with most affection? “Two things stand out: the second Wimbledon title, and carrying the flag at the Olympics. Without taking certain substances, you cannot recreate the high of winning Wimbledon or winning a Davis Cup.
“Even in the low points it was something that gave me drive and motivation to get up and work hard and do stuff. Maybe when I finish I will be happy, living a more stable life. But I don’t think I will be ever able to replace the highs and lows that tennis have given me. I don’t see that happening.”